Category Archives: reality

Neel Mukherjee’s A State of Freedom

The first thing that struck me about A State of  Freedom is it’s cover. The book jacket has a large bear on the cover, which is unusual and arresting but aesthetically pleasing. When I began reading A State of Freedom, it reminded me of Lahiri’s oeuvre because of the way it started and the themes it deals with. But I soon realized Neel Mukherjee’s book is quite different.

The book is edgy and each section ends with a cliffhanger. You want to gallop ahead and connect the dots, and at the same time, you want to take your time to savour the way it’s written.

A State of Freedom has a large canvas and deals with many issues in only 275 pages. The book is divided into 5 sections and the events that unfold are in different geographical locations. The way the stories of these characters are narrated it gives them depth, and makes them appear real, like you and me.

In the first section a man wants to familiarize his increasingly Americanized son with his roots. So they visit Mughal monuments like Fatehpur Sikhri and Taj Mahal. Originally from Calcutta, he has been living abroad for two decades, and now feels like “a tourist in his own country”. He wants his son to see India, and understand the culture he was born into. But they are like aliens from another planet.

I felt disoriented as the first section ended and wanted to give up but I urge you to read on and not be put off by big words.

The second section flows more easily. A Bengali couple, the Sens, lives in Mumbai and their son is a young writer, who lives in London. He returns to India periodically to visit them. He is working on a cookbook which will contain authentic recipes from India as cooked in Indian households. The cooking at their home is done by Renu. Renu works as a cook in many households in Mumbai. Their son is curious about Renu and tries to draw her into conversations but she doesn’t respond.

Treating the domestic help as a lesser human being is perhaps a relic of the Zamindari system. The son now straddles both worlds and finds it  increasingly difficult to deal with the way some things are done in India.

The love of food intersperses this section. If you pay attention, many a recipe can be mined out from these pages. While exploring India for recipes, he also visits Renu’s home at her insistence. It is here he witnesses the divide between the classes.

Another woman, Milly, comes to clean the Sens’ house. She reappears as a major character in another section of the book.

The third section is the longest, and is the soul of the book. Motherless twins are brought up by a father, who dies in a forest fire. One brother then leaves home to find work. It follows the other brother, Lakshman, as he attempts to eke out a livelihood. He finds a bear cub and keeps it to save it from being killed. He calls the bear cub Raju. Though Lakshman is cruel to Raju, he is aware of the fact that he is at the mercy of the helpless animal. With his brother gone, the responsibilityof feeding his wife and children along with his own family now falls squarely on his shoulders.

The way the bear cub is handled, in an attempt to tame it, is barbaric. This, in a country where cows are ‘worshipped’.  It makes you think who are the ones that are wild and savage.

They are animals their pain doesn’t last. All these animals that live in the wild, in the forest, on the streets, you have never known them to need a doctor, have you? They heal quickly, they are strong. It’s we, humans, who are weak.

With hunger gnawing their insides, their lives are foremost about survival. They are largely unaware of the world outside of their existence. They have no time to understand the rights of animals. Lakshman has trouble believing bear dancing is a crime you could be sent to jail for.

Lakshman tries to train him to be a performing bear and wanders from place to place living like a nomad, trying to earn money by making Raju perform in front of a crowd. Lakshman depends on Raju; the bear can forage for food and fend for itself. It makes you think about freedom, who is actually free.

The book shows how leaving home and familiar surroundings in search of a better quality of life works out differently for people, and the price they pay for it.  (Warning – Animal sacrifice is described in this section.)  Continue reading Neel Mukherjee’s A State of Freedom

Thoughts on the characters in Alice Hoffman’s Here on Earth

I found Here on Earth in a book fair I shouldn’t have gone to but went and, if gone,  I shouldn’t have bought anything which was not on my to-read list, but I did (or so I thought). I saw the cover and it instantly jumped out at me. I looked inside to convince myself to buy it, and off went my resolution. Finding it was accident, serendipity or chance, I don’t know. Neither did I know that I would read it over that weekend abandoning another great nonfiction book I was reading. The name seemed familiar but I couldn’t put my finger on it till I came home. It was on my Goodreads to-read list. To think I had added it three years back and it has landed on my shelf only now, without me ever searching for it makes me want to attribute it to fate but I doubt Fate bothers itself with such puny things. Happenstance more like.

I never thought I would like magical realism, and lyrical prose usually annoys me but this was different. In a way it reminded me of The Last Song of Dusk, a book I had liked  but I wasn’t too keen on reading something like that in the near future. But a fair warning, this is not a romance. It is a cautionary tale of doomed love and obsession.

When we are young we believe in so many unrealistic things, like living in a fairytalish world, where everyone gets what they deserve, and every thing works out in the end. Alas, reality isn’t so simple or straightforward. It doesn’t matter if something is fated or not. It’s how we deal with what has happened and what we ultimately do.Here on Earth makes it amply clear.

There was a line in the book, which I cannot find now (I didn’t stop to copy lines until I was near the finish line), about lions and lambs being warm blooded, which chilled me to the bone. They are not as different as the world makes them out to be.  Predator and prey are their ecological roles but they belong to the same class (Mammalia). How could I, a student of biology, not have considered this fact before.

Alice Hoffman’s descriptions are otherworldly but felt so real that you want to believe every single word, and hope it doesn’t break your heart but it does. A thing which isn’t real can feel realer than the everyday reality (that we mostly choose not to dwell on). That is the power of fiction written from a honest place; I am surprised every time it shakes me up and makes me see things anew. Continue reading Thoughts on the characters in Alice Hoffman’s Here on Earth

Waiting for life to figure itself out

Waiting for people who never come. Reading meanings into things that never were. This is the tragedy of life. Will I fight against it all my life?  I am weary in my bones and in my soul, and to live life as it is, is torturous. Yet I carry on in the world of living, as unzombie like as I can be, trying hard not to be a soulless automaton. Growing older, I have given up deciphering what it all means, in the quest to find peace, if not joy.

Some things aren’t for my puny brain to make sense of. Joining the dots and finding the thread of interconnectedness is something bigger than myself. It’s not my job to waste precious neurons and try to figure it all out. Life figures itself out. I ain’t dead yet. So why should I live life as if it didn’t matter, when it is the only thing that is real and tangible.

Coming across Finding Violet Park again

I finished reading Finding Violet Park a couple of days ago and I am still thinking about it, which is always a good sign because my memory isn’t as reliable as it is used to be. I think the cover is brilliant (much better than the photograph I have taken) and when I first got the book, I thought someone had actually doodled all over it. I remember thinking I liked it and at the same time wondered how could they sell such a book, even if it is second hand, until I read the blurb. Silly me.
I knew the book as Me, the Missing and the Dead (but I must confess I like the title Finding Violet Park better because it is a title that doesn’t give anything away) as it was released in America. It’s a title I was familiar with since 2010, when I had read Broken Soup (Jenny Valentine’s second book), having noticed it in Pantaloons (when it still housed books) perhaps because it stood out due to its unusual cover.

After reading Broken Soup, I came to know that her first book, Finding Violet Park, won the Guardian children’s fiction prize and I wanted to read it (the stunning cover was the actual reason). Then university happened and I forgot all about it. Recently I saw it on a used book site (thank you Bookchor) and it all came back to me. Jenny Valentine felt like a nom de plume to me but it is indeed her real name (she married her Valentine).

It is odd coming back to an author whose work I had read when I wasn’t as much of a cynic and sullied by the world as I’m now. While reading I felt as if I was reconciling the present and past versions of me, which is weird because it is the first time I am reading this book but my mind associates Finding Violet Park with an earlier time, a pre-university era.

I read a major chunk of the book while awaiting my turn in a long line (which twisted and turned in ways unimaginable) of people waiting for their turn at the registration counter at a hospital. And if my nose wasn’t buried in the book, the two hour wait in the line moving slower than a snail, which ultimately turned out to be for nothing, would have been maddening. If there is anything I have learnt all these years, it is this – Never leave the house without a book.

The book deals with how Lucas, a 16 year old and his family – mother, sister, brother and grandparents, cope after his father goes missing (read ghosting in real life). It’s a book where death has a strong presence since the other lead character Violet Park, is in a urn (as in already dead). Their paths crisscross and what happens then forms the rest of the narrative.

Lucas has been forced to grow up before he hit his teens and never got the chance to be a normal teenager. He is a bit of an oddball and strange for his age but  that is what growing up too early does to you. He talks to himself often. I get you. I really do. When others don’t understand the only option left is oneself. He idolizes his father, who vanished without a trace, leaving behind his pregnant wife, two children and ageing parents. And this breaks my heart because I know the truth won’t be pretty.

Lucas conjures up out of the world scenarios for his father’s disappearance, never believing him to be dead. He believes that one fine day he will be back in their lives. He is unable to face facts or refuses to do so because the world he has so carefully constructed would then crumble and, he would be left with nothing but a gaping hole, where life as he knew it used to be.

Pete, Lucas’s dad, was absent from their lives but is present throughout the book. Lucas was the worst affected by his absence and could not let go of him even as time passed and there was no hope of his returning home. His mom let him be a walking shrine to his dad, thinking it to be a way he could cope with the disappearance though it made moving on very difficult  for others.

Though published by Harper Children in 2007 this is not a children’s book but would belong in the category YA (young adult). The writing is simple but the themes are complex but then YA books have never been traditional and that is what I like about them. Some people think YA books are rubbish and precocious, and isn’t worth the hype. Read the book for the most unexpected pair of protagonists, if not for the themes it addresses – death, alienation, loneliness, assisted suicide, dissolution of a marriage and growing up in a broken family, trials of old age and ravages of dementia all without ever getting heavy handed.

The book is equal parts funny, tender and sad and hopeful though not all at once. And the ending will leave you gobsmacked. I suggest you get your hands on a copy, if YA floats your boat.

It occurs to me all that most people do when they grow up is fix on something impossible and hunger after it.
 I can’t believe how people turn themselves in circles and repeat the mistakes that screwed them over in the first place.
It’s funny when you start thinking about pivotal moments like this in your life, chance happenings that end up meaning everything.
 Maybe Pansy saw him the way I wanted to, half blind, without the cruel light of actual knowledge. 
I don’t know if I said it right or not when I said it to Bob. It’s much easier saying everything you want to say when you are the only one that is listening. 
…I was thinking how ironic it was, how unfair that I’d been mad for so long at the person who stuck around instead of the one who abandoned me. 
 It’s what you do when you grow up, apparently, face up to things you’d rather not and accept the fact that nobody is who you thought they were, maybe not even close.

In between worlds

Pondering on what is real and what is not while rains lash on,when I’m neither asleep nor awake but in a world in between, in a dream like haze.

I’m steering back and forth 
between 
a dream filled reality
or sleep  
I know not. 
The rain has stopped 
but the growling thunder 
is a sign 
of what is to come. 
A gentle cool breeze 
is coming through the open window 
along with a fine spray.
The house is plunged into darkness 
the power as unreliable 
as the weather forecast. 
I only realize the true value 
of something 
when it is no longer within my grasp.
That is when I want to come back 
the bridge burnt
and the leap can’t be taken.
I listen to the birds gaily chirping 
in spite of the constant growling thunder.
A plane flew by desperate to land 
before the rain descends again. 
When the light comes 
I find its glare too harsh 
having been comforted by darkness
I have made my peace with it. 
I maybe afraid of it
but it has become my friend. 

I am Alive

People forget and forget so easily. Faces. Names. Feelings. Memories. Everything. Where did it all go? You wonder if it ever really happened in the first place. Where are the keepsakes and the letters? Why don’t people think in what might have beens? Why don’t they hold on till their last breath? Why wasn’t there a last phone call? Why let it go all so easily as if it didn’t matter in the first place at all?  Is getting over things so damn easy?

The face in the picture fades. The once loved name ceases to matter. The name which you once worshipped becomes just another word that you know but will never use. The song brings back memories of the days gone by and nostalgia is now tinged with sadness.

Feelings are the worse part,they say. But if you can’t remember that heady feeling, the crest like highs and the bottomless lows, then yours is a heart or a machine, I ask?

Fond memories, warped memories, twisted memories and downright bad memories are all better than having no recollection whatsoever.

What’s the use if everything is so ephemeral, the rational mind harps? You think you have a second chance at everything but you never do. Life is harsh dear girl, get used to it. Shut up, I say.  I will listen to you when the time is right (read after I’m dead).

I know everyone is waiting with  bated breath for your dreams to shatter, they can enjoy the noise and think, yes we are better off with the practical approach to life. All the pain will be worth it. Now she, the naive whimsical idealistic dreamer will know real pain. Oh victory at last !

O capricious fate you will never win. Not over me. The last laugh may not be mine but it certainly won’t be yours, get it? I live, love , get hurt and go through a gamut of emotions but that doesn’t stop me from delving back in with full force, with all my optimism and enthusiasm. With all I have.  Jaded? Me? Never for long. Nothing lasts forever. My yo-yo like nature allows me to spring back from both walk-on-the-cloud-nine happiness and drown-yourself-in-the-drug-of-your-choice sadness. It can happen in an instant and can even take years but happen it will. I am the same old soul, nothing tarnishes me forever.

Who will know the value of dreams if they aren’t shattered? Like the rose tinted glasses I keep handy, it’s okay if they are lost. I will find myself a new one or may be go off without it and see what the fuss is all about.

Bon voyage.